Cyberman: Rhodri Marsden

Whose mail is it anyway?

"You didn't get my e-mail? Have you checked your spam filter?" Well, no - because it's no fun trawling through hundreds of messages from people with names like Hamstring C Semifinalist, which bring news of another time-limited offer for an erection pack (whatever that might be).

Automated programs that filter out suspicious messages may be sophisticated, but we can never be certain that we're receiving all the e-mail we're supposed to, or indeed that messages we send won't get quarantined because we've accidentally used the word "Viagra".

Over the years, various schemes to replace the spam filter have been tested, such as digital signatures or whitelists, but they're laborious to set up and annoying to deal with, and have never been widely adopted. But another idea that's been kicked around for some time is now set to be implemented: AOL and Yahoo! will offer businesses the option of paying a fee to ensure that commercial e-mails they send will bypass spam filters and go directly to their destinations. "Our goal... is to restore some trust in the e-mail inbox," said a spokesperson for AOL.

Campaigners in the US are extremely worked up about this development, which they see as paving the way for a "two tier" internet where charges are levied by internet service providers (ISPs) according to the kind of data that they are carrying on your behalf.

In the early days of dial-up internet access, telephone companies weren't particularly interested in the nifty trick of zeroes and ones being carried over lines designed for voice communication. But today, high bandwidth internet innovations have seen those telcos - along with the ISPs who, between them, now claim "ownership" of the internet - not only want to charge us for being connected, but also want to be rewarded for the arduous task of moving the data around.

Campaigning websites such as dearaol.com and commoncause.org predict that the level playing field of the internet will become distorted as wealthy businesses start to wield greater power, while applications benefiting the individual - such as file-sharing - could be slowed to a crawl or stopped altogether, unless we pay.

To draw the inevitable analogy with city-centre traffic, commercial data would zoom along the bus lane in a licensed black cab, while the rest of us queue in rusting cars on a badly-maintained road, with the likes of Hamstring C Semifinalist hammering on our windows, brandishing time-limited offers for erection packs. And, if we complain, we will no doubt be advised to pay for a black cab.

Another AOL spokesman, Nicholas Graham, can't see what the fuss is about. "The last time I checked," he said, "the postal service had a very similar system to provide different options."

Well, in the past few days I've received leaflets through my front door promoting pizza, mobile phones, retraining schemes, satellite TV, furniture warehouses, supermarkets and spreadable butter, while an urgent CD-R posted by a friend two weeks ago has still failed to show up. Is this really the future of the internet?

cyber@timewasting.net

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